Nelson Mandela was often on my mind nearly 30 years ago. As a freshman at UC Berkeley I slept in front of the administration building for months urging the university to divest itself from companies doing business in South Africa.
One afternoon – instead of packing up our microphones and posters after an anti-apartheid rally – we demanded to speak with the chancellor. It was impetuous and naive to start a sit-in that day, but we were young, racism was wrong and we would not be moved. Soon, the university agreed to meet with our group’s “representatives.”
But truth be told, our group was only a few hours old. Representatives? Demands? Our manifesto was quickly drafted on notebook paper.
We were revolution-minded Berkeley students 20 years too late to see Mario Savio climb on top of a police car when the Free Speech Movement took hold of our campus. Instead, we saw Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election and felt this country wasn’t ours. So we scanned the world for injustice, and found it to a sickening degree in apartheid’s townships, pass laws and massacres.
Our university was investing in companies whose profit margins swelled from cheap black labor. We not only had a right but a responsibility to shine a light on that dark connection.
So we stayed that afternoon, and that night. We sang songs and carried signs. Days became weeks and then months. We slept on the steps, brushed teeth in campus bathrooms and re-named the plaza after Stephen Biko, a South African activist.
It’s trendy now for universities to celebrate their role in ending apartheid, but they opposed us then and even sent us to jail. South Africa was profitable, and it was easy to argue that divesting would harm blacks by taking away jobs. Our message took hold though and the UC divested before I graduated. In 1990 I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison.
It was the greatest lesson of my college career and it came not on a test or in a lecture. I learned that real change can happen, that sometimes justice is served and that we all are better off by standing up for what is right.
Thank you, Mr. Mandela.
With a Perspective, I’m Monica Gyulai.
Monica Gyulai is an artist and a writer. She lives in Berkeley with her two children.